Yesterday we spoke with the Union Square Café’s chef, Carmen Quagliata, about his favorite and most hated foods, and learned all about his bean trellis hobby. Today we switch the focus to learn more about his upbringing and, most importantly, his greatest kitchen disaster.
When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
Early, like, when I was 17. When I started working in restaurants, I just needed a job, and it was the environment and camaraderie [that drew me in]. When I learned how to make things taste great, and realized I could do that for other people, I was hooked. My chef was a CIA grad from the 1970s and I said to him, “I think I want to be a chef.”
What or who have been some of your culinary influences?
I love to cook Italian. I get influenced just wanting to know more about Italy and the country’s ingredients. That’s a cousin of the market, too, because Italians go to the garden to cook. For me, it’s definitely the seasonal market and Italy’s influence and the history of the food and what I like to eat. And the great part about being in New York is that you get inspiration from your peers. There are so many great chefs here.
What is your favorite cookbook?
I have a favorite but I don’t use it; I just read it. It’s Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy. Italy has so many amazing festivals. You could do a restaurant just based on the different festivals it has. And there’s another book I love, too: Martin Yan’s Chinatown Cooking. I started watching food on television when I was a kid. I’d laugh at Julia Child with her big cleaver, and Yan was another. Yan would say, “Yan can cook and so can you!” At home, I love to cook Asian food. My wife loves it, and my kids love it. But when you don’t grow up immersed in that culture, you might not know how to use mirin. So I’ll read the book and learn how to use it.
What advice do you give your chefs at Union Square Café?
For the sous chefs, I tell them to write it down. I load them up because they want to be a chef in a restaurant like this someday. If there are things that crop up, I’ll say write it down, and if you don’t, you’re going to get buried and stressed. And taste your food. Another thing is to listen to the food. The food is talking to you. It might be how the heat is affecting your greens. There’s a constant dialogue between you and your product and you have to listen and anticipate.
What was your all-time worst kitchen disaster?
I’ll never forget; I was roasting a chicken for some great customers at Tra Vigne in Napa, where I worked. They were going to pick it up to go at the back door. I was in charge and put it in to roast, and the chicken burnt to a crisp in 15 minutes. The oven was broken and wasn’t calibrated and was, like, 800 degrees. My heart sank. I should have checked on the bird after five minutes, or if I had just stopped and realized how the heat was hitting my hand. In the end, I wasn’t in charge of making the oven work properly, but, still, anything on my station was mine to own.